HI could be a farmer or a manual worker, in his collarless shirt and brown waistcoat, looking at you honestly. But the brush and palette in his hands confirm Giorgio Morandi’s true calling in the profoundly attractive Self-Portrait he painted in 1925 when he was in his mid-30s.
It’s so accessible, yet Morandi is one of the most mysterious artists of the 20th century. His is the only human figure in the Estorick collection’s beautiful direct encounter with his metaphysical art. Everything else is a silent reckoning with objects and places. There are poplar trees and rivers sketched during his trips to the countryside, but mostly there are paintings, etchings and drawings of the bottles, pots and other household items that he endlessly rearranged in his studio at the family home in Bologna, where he lived throughout his life. lived with his sisters while he learned drawing in schools.
Morandi made still life a 20th-century art form by taking this ancient, humble genre that was already old when artists painted fruit on the walls of Pompeii’s villas and imbuing it with a quaint modern solitude. Of course, he was not the first modernist to see how a bowl of fruit could question existence. His 1927 painting Still Life with Fruits is a tribute to Cézanne, whose apples overturned traditional perspective painting before Morandi was born.
Yet the two painters have almost nothing in common. Morandi does not dismantle perception like Cézanne and his Cubist followers. Instead, he broods over the simultaneous banality and poetry of the shapes of things: a ceramic lemon squeezer with a lemon-yellow top, a blue-and-white bowl, a white porcelain bottle with a long, slender neck. These are some of the kitchen objects arranged in a gray featureless space in his large 1936 canvas Still Life.
What does their arrangement mean? Maybe nothing. The traditional still life often contains a strongly underlined meaning: a skull is a memento mori; a red lobster next to a glass of wine is a condemnation of luxury. But Morandi’s pottery seems to have been put together at random, just for the sake of the paint.
You imagine him taking these items out of the kitchen cupboard and positioning them on a quiet morning. Time stops as he copies the long shadows of the lemon press, bottle and cup. There is no denying the fact that for Morandi – and for us when we look through his eyes – there is a spiritual mystery to this still life. These solid objects appear to shimmer. They are lifeless forms, yet they tremble with phantom consciousness.
Morandi’s leading critical champion was the art historian Roberto Longhi, who rediscovered Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca and taught the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. He claimed Morandi made pilgrimages to see Piero’s frescoes in Arezzo, which is suggestive. Because if Morandi is modern, he is also very old. He studies the physical world with the same quiet passion as this early Renaissance artist.
Yet Morandi lived much of his life in Mussolini’s Italy. As he painted his peaceful pots, violence spread beyond the peaceful courtyard he could see from his window on Via Fondazza, Bologna, of which there is a haunting painting here. Could Morandi really ignore all this? No. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 for his connections with centre-left resistance leaders.
Far from escaping their time, his paintings acknowledge its monstrous shadows. Still Life with Musical Instruments, from 1941, is truly a memento mori: the curved body of a lute looks organic and human, crushed under a guitar and trumpet as if it were a pile of corpses. In a 1942 painting, the pots are pressed together in a tight, terrified crowd. Another 1942 canvas features four tall bottles in a row, like flamboyant chimneys. The spiritual vision became an indication of hell.
However, Morandi’s art is an act of survival and hope: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, to quote Antonio Gramsci, who died in a fascist prison. Morandi’s fidelity to the real world made sense to a growing audience after 1945. By then the fascist sympathetic gloss of futurism was hideous. Now Longhi’s vision, of a tradition of painterly life in Italian art, influenced neorealist cinema.
Morandi shares this movement’s raw poetry in his 1953 Natura Morta. Three long-necked white barrels stand in front of three rectangular objects, as blunt as tombstones. They are apparently bricks, but you can also see them as graves. Are the bottles dead souls? Morandi almost never paints people, but his art aches with humanity and love.